On a 45-degree day in late November, Najib Ullah walked several miles to the Flowerfield industrial complex, which sits south of the eponymous wedding venue off Mills Pond Road in St. James. Past the catering hall and its picturesque grounds, a parking lot serves as the entryway to the complex. Around the bend from Seiskaya Ballet and steps from CrossFit, a warehouselike space is home to the Brookhaven Bike Co-op — a community organization that collects and repairs used bicycles before offering them to anyone who wants one, no questions asked.
A final-year mathematics doctoral student originally from South Asia, Ullah commutes from where he lives in the Selden area to Stony Brook University. One of his friends had gotten a bike from the co-op and sent him a link to the group’s website. Ullah test-rode two bicycles before riding away on the one volunteer Will Ortiz said was "just perfect for him."
Founded in 2019 and funded by the Ferguson Foundation, the nonprofit bicycle co-op gave away 253 bikes in its first operating year. The next year, the co-op distributed 600 bikes. To date, the total is more than 900, a number sure to rise with a holiday giveaway this month, said co-op founder Greg Ferguson.
"The demand way outstrips our ability to keep up with it," Ferguson said.
“The demand way outstrips our ability to keep up with it.” - Brookhaven Bike Co-op founder Greg Ferguson of the need for bicycles. (Photo by Johnny Milano)
Ferguson does not fundraise, nor does he advertise. Instead, he relies on word-of-mouth and building relationships with local organizations whose missions align with that of the co-op. Individuals donate bicycles they would otherwise leave at the curb; some bring bikes their children have outgrown. Since May, Stony Brook University has donated 90 bicycles left behind by students and collected another 90 that, if unclaimed, may be donated in 2022, according to officials in the Office of Sustainability. Trek Bicycle Corp. donates overstock and trade-ins to the co-op.
On Black Friday this year, three representatives from Trek filled a van with bikes donated by customers and delivered the vehicles to the co-op’s St. James location.
"Luckily a lot of them were in really good condition," said Trek Lake Grove service manager Sebastian Atiencia.
Alongside two representatives from the Plainview Trek store, Atiencia, 21, of Bay Shore, helped to check bikes and make quick fixes. By Atiencia’s estimation, the crop included about 25 bicycles and was a mix of bikes for children and adults.
"It’s been clear from the beginning that we are the rate-limiting step," Ferguson said of the challenge he and volunteers face getting wheels ready for those who need them. "We’ve had no problem getting bikes, and we have never been able to meet the demand."
Initially, Ferguson looked to distribute bikes by finding individuals in need through social workers; but now, he looks to partner with food pantries that serve as a direct link to those in need. And so, one of the co-op’s major bicycle donors doubles as an avenue of bicycle distribution.
The North Bellport-based Lighthouse Mission, a food pantry that serves youth as well as adults struggling with addiction, often receives bike donations. Some are in good shape, others are in need of repair. The mission coordinates an exchange with Ferguson.
"If I need bikes I’ll reach out, and he always comes with a trailer full of bikes," said Pastor Michael Caiazzo, 44, of Bellport. "And then I usually give him a trailer full of bikes that need repair."
Caiazzo then distributes the bicycles that are ready to ride; Ferguson and his volunteers fix those that are not. If a bike is beyond repair, the co-op might use it for parts.
"There’s a big need for bicycles amongst the kids, and amongst actually adults who, for one reason or another, need transportation," Caiazzo said. "Maybe got out of prison or they’re in a rehab house, whatever it is."
Variety of volunteers
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted the co-op’s classes on fixing and riding bikes. Meanwhile, demand for bicycles from the co-op "skyrocketed," Ferguson said.
"When people were quarantined, they tended to clean out their garages, but they also took up bike riding because it was safe," he said.
Volunteers continued fixing bikes, a process and setup conducive to social distancing and independent work. Today, an estimated 15 volunteers put in hours at two locations — St. James and Manorville — and three fix bikes at home.
Many volunteers have experience cycling and crossed paths with Ferguson through the sport, but few have prior experience fixing bikes. Mechanics, including Richard Dittmar, Ken Vrana and Paul Pizzano, volunteer their time to check each bike before distribution. Because volunteers work on different schedules, communication often takes the form of notes fastened to bike frames.
"I try to teach everybody," said Dittmar, 66, of Islip Terrace. "You know the old saying, ‘I’d rather teach him to fish than to give him the meal?’ "
Dittmar’s professional life has spanned decades and disciplines. In the realm of cycling alone, Dittmar has been a bike racer, a spin instructor and a bike store owner. As a racer who wasn’t trained to work on his own bikes, Dittmar spent a year as an unpaid employee at his neighborhood bike shop in Tampa, Florida. In the mid-1990s, he trained to be a master bicycle mechanic at the United Bicycle Institute in Oregon.
Outside of cycling, Dittmar has served in the Army as a radar operator on a team guiding a 32-foot nuclear missile, been a professional mime and spent a year as a teacher. A job working on computers for IBM brought him to New York State, where he settled in Islip Terrace and found work as an umpire and a cardiovascular ultrasound technician.
In fact, the prime commonality among co-op volunteers is just the opposite: each boasts a different background. Lori Neste, the organization's longest-standing volunteer, works a day job in program management for a biopharmaceutical company. James Komosinski, a 61-year-old with a second home in Sag Harbor’s West Banks community, founded a ’90s-era dot-com that enabled those working in the self-help field to more easily process payments.
Will Ortiz is a retired social worker and psychotherapist. "But I do have a long history with bicycles and loving bicycles," he said. "When you’re 13 years old in upstate New York, that’s how you get to visit your girlfriend …, you ride eight miles over the river and through the woods."
Ortiz, 66, grew up in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Esopus and came to Long Island in 1974 to study psychology at Stony Brook University. To manage a tendency to get over-involved, Ortiz says he is selective about volunteer projects. He began putting in hours at the co-op in the spring and has so far fixed more than 40 bikes.
"It's a chance to do something concrete," he said. "You take a bike that might've ended up in the dumpster, or in the garbage, and rehab it and somebody who needs a bike can get one."
As a former social worker, Ortiz finds particular satisfaction in connecting those in need of transportation with working bicycles at no cost. And for Ortiz himself, the co-op is a place to go.
"For me, being retired and during the age of COVID and stuff, it’s kind of cool," he said. "I’m about five minutes away so, if in the middle of the day I want to go over there, … I go in there, I put on my music, and I work on a bike."
When there are others in the space, Ortiz puts his music on anyway. With abandon, he moves to the sounds, throwing one arm into the air and then the other. His hips shake all the while.
"We usually do FUV. Eclectic," he said, referring to Fordham University's WFUV/90.7 FM. He rests his cellphone on a shelf, then returns to work.
Its cavernous space filled by the sounds of The Cranberries "Zombie" and the like on a recent Saturday, the co-op saw foot traffic characteristic of a forecast of clear skies. A teenager in worn brown work boots arrived just before noon with a bicycle purchased from a nearby discount store. At the door, Ortiz and Vrana inspected the bike then invited its owner inside.
"I’m tough on the bike," said T.J. Wingert, 18, of St. James, who acquired his first bicycle from the co-op before buying this one.
A welding student at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, Wingert uses the bicycle as his primary form of transportation. He lives with his girlfriend and has not yet saved up enough money to buy a car. Navigating paved roads and rough terrain, Wingert pounds the pedals with the wide soles of his Red Wing boots — regular riding he said explains loose brakes and a deteriorating gear system.
"I knew that something was wrong with the bearings because usually when the bike pedals spin, they make the ‘click’ sound," he said. "It wasn’t making the clicking sound; it was more of a ‘ka-chunk’ every time."
At the workstation nearest the back wall, Vrana began working on the bike with Wingert looking over his shoulder. Volunteers often aim to fix a bike while showing its owner how to make fixes themselves.
"We’re very conscious about not being a ‘bike shop,’ " Ferguson said. "We definitely want the local bike shops to be our partners and not competitors."
The co-op fills an alternate need and serves a different clientele than most bike shops do, Ferguson said. But volunteers are generous with their expertise, and a gloved-up Vrana took a hands-on approach to fixing Wingert’s bike.
"T.J., you ride in the dark?" Vrana asked.
"I do ride in the dark," Wingert replied.
"Do you want lights instead of reflectors?" Vrana continued.
With that, Wingert followed Vrana back to the workstation.
Brookhaven Bike Co-op will host a holiday bike giveaway from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 18 at its St. James location, 8 Flowerfield, Unit 18, St. James, NY 11760. There will be at least 60 free adult and kids bicycles available, as well as refreshments.
Brookhaven Bike Co-op accepts donations of bicycles of all sizes and in any condition. To donate in St. James, bring bicycles to 8 Flowerfield, Unit 18, St. James, NY, 11760. Leave bicycles in the bike rack in front of the unit, which is in the middle of Building 8, at the back of the complex. To donate in Manorville, bring bicycles to 515 Eastport Manor Rd., Manorville, NY 11949. Leave bicycles behind the building. To volunteer, call 631-371-3886, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bbcoop.org; or contact Greg Ferguson directly at email@example.com.